Laurin McCracken | Travel Sketches

Nothing helps you remember a time and a place like making a sketch while you are there. I must have taken a hundred photos of the little town of Nafplio, Greece, but I don’t remember taking any of them. But, I will never forget the sepia ink sketch I did of the town center. I can still feel the breeze blowing off the bay and taste the glass of wine I had while doing this drawing. I can still remember my sister holding an umbrella over my head when a rain shower came up while I was doing the double page spread of Balquhidder, Scotland. Those are the kind of memories you can’t get from taking a photo. Those are the times that make doing a travel sketch most valuable.

I use a number of media when sketching during my travels. I usually have a number of options in a small shoulder bag. I chose what seems appropriate to the time and location as well as by listening to the muse.

Pencil sketches are the easiest, no muss no fuss, just a good #2 (HB) pencil and a pad. In the long run, they are the toughest to reproduce because they have a lot of subtle tones. In the drawing from Florence of the Piazza Della Signoria, I have turned the drawing into a high-contrast image.

  • Walnut Ink
  • Cerulean Blue, Chromium
  • Phthalo Blue (RS)
  • Prussian Blue
  • Carbazole Violet
  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Cadmium Red Medium Hue
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep Hue
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue
  • Cadmium Yellow Light Hue
  • New Gamboge
  • Quinacridone Gold
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • English Red Earth
  • Venetian Red
  • Sepia
  • Neutral Tint

I really enjoy doing ink drawings. I typically use a fountain pen with a thin calligraphy nib. It gives me very fine lines when turned on its side and a broader line when held “Face Down”. My favorite inks are Sepia and DANIEL SMITH Walnut Ink. Sepia is a deeper color, while the Walnut ink is more reddish. Walnut ink is more water soluble and with just a #6 round and a glass of water you can create fun washes.

On the Sepia Ink sketch of the Piazza Della Signoria, Florence, I used Espresso Coffee as a wash. Espresso is referred to as the “poor architectural student’s wash”. For generations, architectural students have traveled around Europe, and the world, sketching the major and minor architectural monuments using their cup of Espresso and a glass of water to create a range of warm washes to enhance their travel sketches.

From time to time I even use black ink, as in the sketch of the medieval street in Gubbio, Italy, a small hill town near Fabriano.

Travel sketches have a lot of uses. In the case of the Interior, Bath, England, I was suffering through a very long, pompous speech about the superiority of English town planning. Drawing the interior of this fine room turned a time that was becoming quite tiresome into a lovely afternoon. I think the drawing of the window, in the same room, is a reflection of my desire to escape.

My favorite sketch books are 7” x 10” wire bound. I have them in a heavy weight drawing surface and a watercolor paper. I also carry post card size watercolor blocks. Over the years, I have sent my children and grandchildren post card drawings both to share my experiences with them and to let them know that I am always thinking about them.

Watercolor is usually reserved for when you have more time and a comfortable, shady place to sit. These should not be confused with the more serious side of Plein Air painting. These are done faster and with the intent of just recording the moment.

My Mother’s family, the McLaurins (MacLaren) have gathered in the glen of Balquhidder, in the southern highlands near Sterling, since the year 960. Therefore, it was most appropriate that I record my visit there in a few sketches, as time allowed. The story of the ruined Kirk beside the new Kirk, and that Rob Roy McGregor is buried just outside the door of the ruined Kirk is fixed in my mind now that I have done that sketch in the late afternoon.

I hope these will give you ideas for your next trip. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. It doesn’t even need to be finished. I have bits and scraps of sketches started that were never finished because a rain came up, or my friends came back from shopping before I had expected them. Don’t let that bother you; Stay Calm – Sketch On.

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 Laurin McCracken is an award-winning artist whose paintings have been exhibited in juried shows coast to coast including the Philadelphia Water Color Society, California Watercolor Society, Southern Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society and the American Watercolor Society. His paintings have also been juried into shows in China, Malaysia, Belgium, Thailand and Russia.